March 14, 2024 | by Addison Rabon

Toxic Positivity and Cancer

It’s a flashbulb memory, a lightning bolt moment forever etched in my mind. I was in the car, my mother hovering over me, buckling my seatbelt. She uttered heavy words, so low that I barely heard them. “We’re going to the cancer clinic.” Did I mishear? She said cancer. I don’t have cancer. My face became wet from tears I couldn’t control as the world went quiet and I felt alone. That moment slowed down my existence, forcing me to face reality instead of acting “fine.” Being an optimist, it was challenging for me to recognize the truth, lying to myself in order to keep my hopes up. I thought it was a healthy form of protection. The world seemed dangerous; I chose to stay in my positivity bubble, refusing to let weakness show.

Looking back, it’s easy to spot the toxic positivity. At age 10, I could convince myself that if I kept a positive mindset, I would be cured. If I was smiling, no one could see my pain. I was even able to hide that hurt from myself. Few people seek vulnerability, but a real problem arises when you realize you can’t be vulnerable with yourself. When I was diagnosed, it felt as though the whole world knew. I would get dozens of gifts, messages, and kind words. Daily, I was flooded with positive affirmations like, “You got this,” “Just keep fighting,”  “Don’t give up.” The most memorable phrase: “Everything happens for a reason,” seemed encouraging at the time. Yet, looking back it doesn’t seem like the most healthy mindset. Where is the good in my life being threatened? Is it good for my body to be pumped full of toxic chemicals? It seemed like dismissive encouragement, a way to check off the spectator’s box of sympathy and move on. I longed for the freedom to spout unsubstantiated claims and then move forward. Unfortunately, this was my life. Cancer consumed me for 3 long years.

Without fail, the suffocation of people telling me to stay positive lingered. What I needed was someone to look at me, see my pain, and tell me it was all right to be sad because cancer is not a happy disease. I needed the space to sit with my feelings. When I was constantly told how to feel, my emotions went to the back burner. Another flashbulb- a few months after I started chemotherapy. I was going in for another scan, like countless others I had done. It felt different, igniting a sinking feeling in my stomach. When the doctor told me that my tumor had grown and metastasized, I was unable to feel any emotion. I was not even phased—I had become paralyzed by the constant disappointment of my disease.

Years into remission, I still struggle to identify my emotions fully. The numbness of optimism follows me wherever I go. Yet, I learned lessons from my cancer experience. I know that constant cheerfulness is not the answer, and always looking on the bright side is not healthy. When I experience emotion, positive or negative, it’s okay to sit with the feeling and process. Being authentic and vulnerable with myself is a crucial step, because each emotion is valid.

Cancer is a heavy burden. The word itself brings unnecessary tension due to cancer stigma. People feel obligated to throw positive statements at patients like confetti. Positivity becomes toxic when it is used to silence the human experience. Cancer brings an incomprehensible impact to the body and mind. Patients are left feeling empty, hopeless, and defeated. These feelings are valid, and should not be masked by positivity. Now, walking through life, I am aware of my emotions and the emotions of others, seeking to validate authenticity and giving permission to feel deeply, not push aside the pain.

I later knew life without cancer, yet I still struggled to find purpose or meaning to my diagnosis. In 2020, I decided to make a change, to at least try finding meaning somewhere. During September, National Pediatric Cancer Awareness Month, I hosted a fundraiser and raised over $2,000 for the Histio Cure Foundation. I’ve done three more fundraisers each September raising over $12,000 for the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation. With each fundraiser, my love for them grew. Every time someone donated, that feeling of incompleteness shrunk. Little by little, fundraising filled my soul as my love for this work deepened.

I have learned that this feeling of incompleteness is common for cancer patients in recovery. Taking the initiative and doing something about this feeling was my most fulfilling deed. It helped me give some type of purpose to my pain. Selfishly, every time a friend, family member, co-worker or even a stranger donated, I felt validated. I knew the money wasn’t for me, but it’s hard to think my story didn’t play some part in their generosity. I think that’s the beauty of fundraising, that you can take life’s worst moments and turn them into unwavering support for others. I have been cancer-free for 7 years. I am eternally thankful for those 7 years, yet I am most grateful and proud of the money I have raised and will continue to raise for pediatric cancer.

Addison Rabon was diagnosed with Langer Hans Cell Histiocytosis when she was 10 years old and fought for 3 years. She’s happy today to say she’s been in remission for 7 years! She was raised in Charlotte, NC with her parents and 2 sisters. Addison is studying Entrepreneurship and Communications at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. She’d like to start her own non-profit dedicated to Pediatric Cancer someday.

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Photo credits: Addison Rabon